JOINING ONE-THIRD OF THE ADULTS in Moldova, Europe’s poorest country, Maia Sandu MC/MPA 2010 left home a decade ago to pursue education and opportunity abroad, earning a Harvard Kennedy School degree and then working for the World Bank in Washington. But unlike most young Moldovans, she went back, determined to use her education and management skills to repair a corrupt political system that was destroying her homeland.
Within a few years, the young technocrat joined the Cabinet, established a pro-European political party, ran for president (narrowly losing), and then, last June, engineered an unlikely coalition that made her prime minister of the small former Soviet republic, sandwiched between Ukraine and Romania. In office, she confronted billionaire oligarchs and pro-Russian Socialists who had vied with one another for control over government coffers.
Sandu’s tenure as prime minister ended in November, after just five months; her foes ousted her through a no-confidence vote when she refused to back down from recruiting an independent chief prosecutor to fight corruption and enforce the law. But she remains defiantly determined to bring her country fully into Europe and into a more hopeful future.
“I will definitely continue the fight,” Sandu told HKS Magazine following her ouster. “The situation in my country is difficult, especially because voters who believe in democracy continue to emigrate, but I am still hopeful for Moldova and will work hard to contribute to building a democratic country, with good governance.”
Sandu broke onto Moldova’s national—and fractious—political stage immediately after returning from the United States in 2012. She was appointed education minister—and quickly showed her resolve to modernize her homeland. She enacted numerous reforms, including installing video cameras in exam rooms to end widespread cheating; bribes to educators went down 50 percent, according to one study. Sandu infuriated vested interests but won growing public admiration.
Frustrated by the entrenched corruption she witnessed, she founded a new political party—the Party of Action and Solidarity—in 2015 and ran for president a year later, drawing 48 percent of the vote in the runoff. Her party became a credible force in Parliament in the reformist pro-European bloc.
After inconclusive parliamentary elections in February 2019, Sandu forged a coalition with the old-guard, pro-Russian Socialists. Their shared goal was to squeeze out the wealthy oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc, whose ruling party was accused of living off theft from nearly every public institution. Moldovans endured a weeklong constitutional crisis in June, with her foes blockading government buildings. Sandu stood firm, and a court ruling prompted Plahotniuc and several allies to back down and leave the country in their private jets. Sandu became prime minister, vowing to pursue a policy of “de-oligarchization.”
In an interview with HKS Magazine in Washington in September, she recalled the tense days of recruiting technocrats and expatriates to join her cabinet. (For the first time in Moldova, the cabinet had more women than men.) Some said yes because they were certain that Sandu would never take office. “I think I was the only one who believed there was a chance for this government to happen,” she said.
The challenges were immense from the outset. In one especially notorious corruption case, discovered in 2014, $1 billion was pilfered from three Moldovan banks, forcing a government bailout. No one has been charged.
“It is about making people believe again in their country,” Sandu said when asked to describe her top priority. Citizens watched the bank theft unfold, “and then nobody is held responsible, not one single cent is recovered in four years,” she said. “People stop believing in the state, in the country. Why would somebody want to open a business, pay taxes, in a country that allows these things to happen?”
During that September visit, Sandu spoke for 25 minutes without notes at a forum hosted jointly by the International Republican Institute (IRI) and the National Democratic Institute in Washington. She outlined the obstacles and explained her strategy for overcoming them. Soft-spoken but direct and blunt, she described the scale of the graft in government agencies. She needed to cleanse the court system of corrupt judges; she faced a separatist movement in Transnistria; Ukraine’s dispute with Russia could lead to a cutoff of natural gas supplies this winter; previous controls on the media linger in ways that diminish open debate. “But I believe the stronger the institutions, the less vulnerable we are in the face of the external risks,” she said.
After she was toppled from office, she pointed to some significant victories during her rule. “We started to clean up government institutions, state-owned enterprise, health care, and other sectors from pervasive corruption and shameless extraction of rent,” she told a European political convention in Croatia a week after she left office. “We broke down illegal monopolies that were suffocating the economy. We stopped huge flows of smuggling in tobacco products.”
Still, she knew she was fighting powerful forces—even within her coalition. Finally, the Socialist Party broke with her and brought an early end to the experiment. As she explained it, the power brokers could not stomach the idea of a truly independent judiciary that would investigate and prosecute those who stole from the people.
“We scared them with our uncompromising approach to fighting corruption, and they took down our government,” she said. “But we have managed to rid the country of one authoritarian leader and we will do it again. The people will no longer accept to live in an oppressive, corrupt regime, which takes away their fundamental rights.”
American specialists on Eastern Europe, normally skeptical of promises of change in the region, had expressed surprise and admiration as Sandu rose to leadership. “She took the helm at a very challenging time because of how divided the country is between those who look to Moscow, those who look to line their own pockets, and those who look to Europe,” said Damon Wilson, vice president of the Atlantic Council. Sandu draws on more than an HKS education and World Bank training, Wilson said: “She’s got an extraordinarily strong moral compass and sense of purpose. What some people saw as potentially a liability—that she would be almost too honest, too earnest, almost too good—is her ultimate strength.”
Sandu said in September that she knew she was making a high-stakes gamble by aligning with the Socialists but felt that public patience was running out. “I just knew this was our last chance, because if we let the previous regime continue, fewer and fewer activists would have been willing to expose themselves and stay with us. So this was a critical moment, and we had to use it.”
She smiled when she remembered her time at Harvard. “That was the best year,” she said. “Harvard helped me realize you should not get disappointed. We have to understand that development takes time, and we have to kind of sequence our expectations. It helped me a lot, in terms of leadership skills, analytical skills, but also putting things into perspective, and not getting disappointed and insisting on things.”
Banner image by Valentyn Ogirenko; inline image by Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency